Throughout my involvement in political debate I have noticed that most of the charges leveled against libertarians are complete myths or fabrications. There are a lot of wrong ideas about libertarians out there; some are the product of common misunderstandings, though others are intentionally misleading for the purpose of gaining leverage in an argument. Here are nine of the most common myths I have come across in my experience and my modest attempt to refute them. Where possible I have tried to provide quotes by eminent libertarian thinkers to reinforce my claims. Also, as I do not mean to claim that libertarian ideas are indisputable, I provided a brief alternative question or criticism that can be used in place of the fallacious one. Put all you questions and counterarguments in the comments below!
1. Libertarians are greedy. They hoard wealth and refuse to share it in the face of abject poverty.
The primary reason for this myth is that libertarians oppose all forms of taxation, implying that they wish to keep all the wealth they earn. The most egregious form of taxation is of course the income tax, which destroys wealth and punishes success. More than that, the income tax is one of the most widespread instances of state-sanctioned violence and theft. The philosophical underpinnings of the income tax are that your property does not belong to you but rather belongs to the state that benevolently allows you to keep a percentage after paying tribute.
Governments cannot produce wealth. They can only take wealth from productive citizens. Taxes are the use or threat of violent force by a government to accumulate wealth. Hans-Hermann Hoppe pointed out:
“One can acquire and increase wealth either through homesteading, production and contractual exchange, or by expropriating and exploiting homesteaders, producers, or contractual exchangers. There are no other ways.”
It is not a sense of avarice to which a libertarian appeals when she condemns taxation, but an understanding that the state has no legitimate cause to so violate the property rights of any citizen.
Property rights are the most important natural or God-given rights because all other rights are derived from them. Murray Rothbard once noted:
“There are no human rights that are separable from property rights. The human right of free speech is simply the property right to hire an assembly hall from the owners, or to own one oneself; the human right of a free press is the property right to buy materials and then print leaflets or books and to sell them to those who are willing to buy. There is no extra “right of free speech” or free press beyond the property rights we can enumerate in any given case.”
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Present a moral justification for taxation and demonstrate that it supersedes the right to private ownership of property.
2. Libertarians are cruel. They believe the poor and disenfranchised deserve their plight and are wont to help them.
This misconception is very closely related to the last one, but here, instead of looking at the taking of wealth, allow me to focus on its reallocation.
The idea that Libertarians are cruel stems largely from the fact that libertarians tend to oppose government redistribution schemes, such as welfare, minimum wage laws, socialized health care, and Social Security. It is thought that if the government is not sufficiently funded through taxation that it will not be able to provide assistance to those citizens who desperately need it.
In actuality, Libertarians simply recognize that “more taxation for more programs or else widespread poverty and misery” is a false choice. The moral argument against taxation is part of the response, but so to is the consequentialist argument.
Libertarians believe that producing and distributing wealth through free markets produces greater prosperity than anything the government can hope to do with the money after they have taken it. Governments are full of fraudulent and inept bureaucrats and are isolated from market profit and loss signaling. They subsequently are highly inefficient and tend to misallocate money and resources. Capitalism has been the historical driving force for combating poverty around the world, not government intervention. Friedrich Hayek notes:
“Modern civilization, which enables us to maintain four billion people in this world, was made possible by the institution of private property. It’s only thanks to this institution that we achieved an extensive order far exceeding anybody’s knowledge, and if we destroy that moral basis, which consists in the aggregation of private property, I think it will destroy the sources which nourish present day mankind and create a catastrophe of starvation beyond anything mankind has yet experienced.”
We can see that, from a moral standpoint, libertarians honestly believe that capitalism produces better results than government theft and planning. Social entrepreneurship and private philanthropy is also preferable because it allows individuals to determine the most efficient way to extend charity or assistance and also disincentivises dependence. On governmental charity schemes, Thomas Jefferson wrote:
“I predict future happiness for Americans, if they can prevent the government from wasting the labors of the people under the pretense of taking care of them.”
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Present data that demonstrate that government redistribution schemes provide better and fairer results than capitalist or voluntary methods.
3. Libertarians are hedonistic purveyors of “alternative lifestyles”.
In my experience, there seem to be a lot of people out there who believe that libertarians are simply republicans that like to smoke weed. It is true that libertarians support rather socially liberal policies: the legalization of not just weed but all drugs, the legalization of prostitution, same-sex marriage rights, etc. What is incorrect about this assessment is that libertarianism is not a moral framework theory but a political philosophy that deals with the proper role of force in society.
I personally have never consumed marijuana and have no interest in doing so. I am morally opposed and disgusted by the use of heroine and methamphetamine due to their addictiveness and proclivity for calamity. I find prostitution to be repugnant and degrading. In spite of all this, I believe that the only proper role of violence is to protect oneself and one’s property from initiated, aggressive violence. Government prohibition of these items or behaviors is the initiation of violence and is therefore illegitimate and a violation of the principles of self-ownership and property rights.
Libertarianism does not present a code of conduct; it presents liberty so that every person can be free to follow his or her own morals and principles.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Argue the case that the initiation of violence is legitimate for the prohibition of certain property items and non-coercive behaviors.
4. Libertarians are individualistic, self-centered, and amoral and only approach social interactions in terms of cost-benefit.
An example is when libertarians present economic arguments against state-sponsored welfare they are often criticized of unfairly reducing human inequality and suffering to faceless mathematical models.
In the realm of economics, libertarians are “subjectivists”, which means that they do not believe there is any objective value to things such as resources and labor, the value is based on scarcity and demand. Because they cannot be objectively calculated, social cost-benefit analysis becomes irrelevant.
Libertarians are not amoral, they believe in the absolute immorality of aggressive violence. What sets them apart is that they apply this principle not only to individuals, but to government as well, as Murray Rothbard explains:
“Libertarians make no exceptions to the golden rule and provide no moral loophole, no double standard, for government. That is, libertarians believe that murder is murder and does not become sanctified by reasons of state if committed by the government. We believe that theft is theft and does not become legitimated because organized robbers call their theft ‘taxation.’ We believe that enslavement is enslavement even if the institution committing that act calls it ‘conscription.'”
They believe in the primacy of the individual through the principle of self-ownership. They do not, however, imagine themselves as isolated islands. One principle that often leads to this confusion is the belief that it is best for people to pursue their self-interests, but what is often lost from this principle is that acting out of self-interest, in the absence of coercive force, tends to improve society as a whole. Economist Adam Smith said it best:
“[An individual] intends only his gain, he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.”
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Provide a moral argument for the use of government violence in establishing social order.
5. Libertarians are utopians that believe that people will act rationally and behave, thus making the state irrelevant.
Libertarians do not believe a utopian state is possible. They recognize that individuals have different morals, the world is not perfect, there are scarce resources, and people have competing interests.
How could we then have a society with a small government or no government at all; doesn’t anarchy practically mean disorder and violence?
What is forgotten from this question is the fact that the state is the only social institution that is legitimized for extracting wealth through coercion from the citizenry and then using that wealth to regulate rights and property. In this way, a big government actually encourages criminality. A free society that does not establish legitimized pathways for theft and tyranny encourages liberty and discourages aggression.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Rationalize or demonstrate that a state that initiates force provides better outcomes than one that only protects citizens from aggression.
6. Libertarians oppose all economic regulation. Laissez faire means, “do whatever you want.” They also hate the environment.
An economy cannot be “unregulated”. Libertarians simply understand that market regulations do their job when the rule of law is upheld and that government imposed regulation is unnecessary. More than that, government regulations are a product of a different economic system, mercantilism, though it is often colloquially referred to as cronyism. They are written on the auspices of protecting consumers and workers but they are almost always constructed by special interest groups to grant monopolistic privileges to the politically connected at the expense of nearly everyone else. The thought is that free markets cannot be left to their own devices because people have the ability to do bad things, and therefore it is necessary for government to regulate and protect. Ludwig von Mises exposed this as a fallacy:
“If one rejects laissez faire on account of man’s fallibility and moral weakness, one must for the same reason also reject every kind of government action. “
Environmentalism is a topic that would require a much greater exposition than is prudent for this article. Suffice it to say that libertarians believe that private property provides much better outcomes than state ownership, which is vulnerable to the tragedy of the commons.
For more on the self-regulating aspects of free markets, see this article.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Provide evidence to support the claim that government regulations provide better outcomes or are morally superior than market regulations.
7. Libertarians are contemptible racist and sexist elitists.
This belief casts libertarians as only being privileged white males, or subsequently that libertarian policies only benefit that group. It, like other myths, comes from a misunderstanding of libertarian positions on certain policies.
One example would be the argument held by Ron Paul and many libertarians that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should not have included provisions that violated private property rights. To put it another way, if a store owner chooses to refuse to sell goods and services to black people, libertarians believe that he has the right to discriminate and laws forcing him not to are illegitimate. Such a law would violate the property rights of the owner and would do nothing to shape the owners moral perspective into something more socially acceptable. As Frank Meyer has pointed out:
“Men cannot be forced to be free, nor can they even be forced to be virtuous. To a certain extent, it is true, they can be forced to act as though they were virtuous. But virtue is the fruit of well-used freedom. And no act to the degree that it is coerced can partake of virtue — or of vice.”
In a stroke of largely unrecognized irony, the Civil Rights Act actually nullified certain individual’s private property rights. It’s easy to think, “Well that’s okay, I see no problem in limiting person A’s rights in order to counter the oppression experienced by people like person B.” But it is in fact person B’s rights that are being violated as well; it is everyone’s. A government that will destroy rights for reasons of perceived morality or equality will retain the power to deny the rights to actions that you yourself may perceive to be acceptable. When libertarians support the right of a business owner to discriminate, or the right of two adult men to consensually marry, or the right of a minister to proselytize in a public forum, they are simply being ideologically consistent.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Don’t just call someone a racist, it is the laziest substitute for argument. Assert your belief that it is morally acceptable for natural rights to be violated in the interest of equality.
8. Libertarians are anarchists.
Actually, this may be fair. Some libertarians are anarchists, this is true, though, to be more accurate, they are anarcho-capitalists. Here we must ensure correct understanding; anarchism does not mean widespread violence and chaos, it simply refers to a society that lacks the institution of an authoritarian state. Anarcho-capitalists believe that a stateless society would produce better outcomes and is the only morally justifiable society.
Many libertarians believe that government serves a purpose of defending against and prosecuting cases of crime, which at its core is any occasion of initiating force to violate another’s rights. Because governments tend to expand and subsequently authorize the violation of rights, some libertarians think that government is not capable of maintaining its proper scope, and should be abolished. Others contend that the rule of law cannot be practically upheld without some sort of limited, constitutional government. It is one of the most important debates within libertarianism.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Ask him if he is an anarchist or not. Go from there.
9. Libertarians are ideologues who only speak in slogans.
Those who substitute this myth for actual arguments fail to consider the notion that libertarians adhere to their ideology for its strength of reasoning. When a libertarian rejects a popular policy, rest assured that they have acute reasons for doing so. Perhaps they recognize unintended consequences, or they are skeptical of the policy’s ability to achieve its stated ends, or they propose an alternative policy, or they are rejecting violence of the state.
As Ron Paul attracted many libertarian-minded people during his recent presidential campaign, a popular way to discredit them without having to think critically was to call one, among other things, a “Paulbot”. This euphemism was particularly common among various internet forums frequented by Paul supporters eager to rebut claims made in an article or by other commenters. It is used to imply a brain-washed state of mind in which these individuals could not think for themselves but only in repetitive slogans.
Libertarians do use common phrases and slogans, but then again so do individuals in any community with a unique technical vocabulary. They are highly useful and efficient ways of communicating information. When I get going one might hear me utter some common words and phrases: moral hazard, the initiation of force, perverse incentive, etc.
Repeating them might get on someone’s nerves, but they do not devoid them of meaning or delegitimize them from a dialectic standpoint.
So how SHOULD I argue with a libertarian? – Consider what your own ideology is that is shaping your position on an issue and then present it as a superior alternative to the libertarian narrative. Argue against the content of a suspected slogan, not merely the use of one.
Interested to find out more about libertarians and what they believe? Check out this article which explains the fundamentals of libertarianism!
Much of the content of this article was borrowed from Murray Rothbard’s essay “Myths and Truths About Libertarianism”, the text of which can be found here.
Here you can find a great video on the topic from Julie Borowski.